Margaret Thompson was one of Canada’s most respected geneticists, a pioneer in genetic counselling and a devoted researcher into the causes of certain diseases.
She also participated in one of the darker chapters in this country’s history.
Hailed as a gifted scientist who had a lasting impact on Canada’s health care system, Dr. Thompson also served for two years on the Alberta Eugenics Board, which approved the forced sterilization of individuals deemed unfit to reproduce.
Margaret (Peggy) Anne Wilson Thompson, who died in Toronto on Nov. 3 at the age of 94, was born on the Isle of Man, in England, on Jan. 7, 1920, and was six years old when her family moved to Saskatchewan. Like many young women at the time, she completed teacher training, and taught in rural schools for two years. She graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in 1943 with a degree in biology, and completed a PhD in zoology, specializing in metabolic genetics, from the University of Toronto in 1948.
She spent two years teaching at the University of Western Ontario before moving to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where she taught zoology and started the Hereditary Genetic Counselling clinic. She also served on the Alberta Eugenics Board from 1960 to 1962, which authorized the sterilization of institutionalized “mentally defective” people who presented “the danger of procreation” if discharged and risked “transmission of [their] disability” to potential children. She was the board’s last surviving member, according to the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada.
Eugenics was introduced in 1883 by Francis Galton, who was Charles Darwin’s cousin, to apply the ideals behind the selective breeding of plants and animals to humans in order to weed out defects, including insanity, criminality and mental incompetence, and improve the quality of the human “gene pool.” It is widely dismissed today as pseudo-science and a violation of basic human rights.
Founded in 1928 to implement Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act, the rotating, four-person eugenics board approved the mostly involuntary sterilization of 2,834 individuals until it was shut down, and the act repealed, in 1972 by the government of then-premier Peter Lougheed. The only other eugenics board in Canada existed in British Columbia from 1933 to 1973.
In 1999, then-premier Ralph Klein apologized for the Alberta board’s work and offered millions of dollars in compensation to survivors.
Dr. Thompson’s death notice, the many online condolences and tributes, various biographies, her entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia and, most notably, her 1988 Order of Canada citation – none makes any mention of her involvement on the eugenics board. Instead, they focus on the life and work of a protean scientist, mentor and teacher.
“[Eugenics] was not a subject that I recall her speaking about,” said her son Bruce Thompson, “until the mid-1990s, when she informed us that the actions of the board were being investigated and that her testimony would be required. Other than knowing that she was giving testimony in Alberta, I recall no further conversations with her on this matter.”
Some of her former colleagues expressed shock at discovering Dr. Thompson’s involvement in eugenics, and had difficulty reconciling it with what they knew of her. “She never mentioned it to me and I’m astonished, actually. I was completely ignorant of it,” said Brian Lowry, a Calgary geneticist who knew Dr. Thompson since the late 1950s. “It’s a complete surprise and it doesn’t fit in with my later warm knowledge of Peggy. She was a terrific teacher and mentor to countless number of students.”
Though not a medical doctor, Dr. Thompson “was a superb diagnostician at the bedside, and more skilled in dealing with patients and their families than most physicians I’ve worked with since,” said Kathy Siminovitch, a clinician and geneticist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital who was once Dr. Thompson’s summer student. “She was like a mother, friend and huge role model for me, and I am pretty sure that many women, and probably men, in the world of Canadian genetics feel the same way,” she said in a printed tribute.
Some of Dr. Thompson’s friends maintain that the eugenics board’s decisions were based on the best scientific advice and medical techniques available in those days, and were in step with the public mood at the time. She meant well, they stress, she was young and maybe pressured to serve, and it was just two years in a long career.
Others have been less charitable. One scientist at a 2011 University of Alberta panel called Dr. Thompson’s Order of Canada “a blight on our profession.” And Rob Wells, an Alberta human-rights activist, launched a campaign years ago to strip her of the honour, based on her “serious attacks on human dignity and grave humiliation and degradation of human beings.” Detractors also argue that Dr. Thompson not only never apologized or expressed regret for her role in eugenics, but defended it.
Charles Scriver, Canada’s first human biochemical geneticist, recalled Dr. Thompson as being “at the vanguard of what human and molecular genetics became what [they are] now.” Asked whether a geneticist in 1960 would consider eugenics as part of her normal calling or, imposing the modern standard, repellent, Dr. Scriver replied, “on the border between repellent and part of [the] practice of the day.”
After Dr. Thompson left the board, she headed back east in 1963, landing at the University of Toronto, where she taught molecular genetics, and at the renowned Hospital for Sick Children, where she continued with genetic counselling and worked on a method of early diagnosis of Down syndrome. At both institutions, she extended her research on human genetics and their role in childhood diseases, particularly muscular dystrophy. She retired from the Hospital for Sick Children in 1988.
She published widely on a variety of genetic disorders, but her passion was muscular dystrophy, according to a tribute published by two of her colleagues, doctors Lou Siminovitch and Ron Worton. Dr. Thompson “kept precise records of [muscular dystrophy’s] clinical features, carrier status of mothers and a detailed family history.” This proved invaluable when Dr. Worton identified the gene responsible for variants of the disease known as Duchenne and Becker muscular dystrophies.
She and her husband, James Thompson, a professor of anatomy, co-authored what has become a standard textbook, Genetics in Medicine, first published in 1966. Eugenics, they acknowledged in the textbook, was thought to have been “discredited” when it was used in Nazi Germany to justify mass murder.
Dr. Thompson had leadership roles in all her profession’s main organizations – the Genetics Society of Canada (now folded into the Canadian Society for Molecular Biosciences), the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists, which ensures that physicians and scientists play equal roles, and the American Society of Human Genetics. She received top awards from all of them, and the Canadian organizations have annual prizes named for her.
The Order of Canada cited her as “a pioneer in medical genetics in Canada and one of the leaders in genetic counselling in North America. Her research into the genetic causes of muscular dystrophy, neural tube defects and the prenatal diagnosis of birth defects has brought relief from anxiety and suffering to families afflicted with genetic disease, and have had a considerable impact on the quality of health care enjoyed by Canadians.”
In a 1996 National Film Board production, The Sterilization of Leilani Muir, Dr. Thompson spoke about the eugenics board’s workings. “Patients were always seen by us personally, and that gave us an opportunity to see for ourselves what kind of people they were, to make some sort of judgment about their intelligence and their functioning – their ability to function as members of society. Would they make good parents and would they transmit their biological defects? Those were the two big considerations.”
One study later showed that First Nation and Métis people had a 75-per-cent chance of being sterilized once they were approved, making them the group most likely to undergo the procedure.
Soon after leaving the board, Dr. Thompson conceded that eugenics had limited success. Addressing a conference in Ottawa in 1964, she admitted that “the positive genetic effect [of sterilizations in Canada] is negligible” and “that sterilization of defective children was not particularly helpful eugenically.” Genetic counselling, not involuntary sterilization, was most likely to prove useful, she stated.
Even so, she defended her eugenics work in a 1996 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “My attitude is that, at the time, it was a reasonable approach to a very difficult problem … males and females in institutions did indulge in sex, as you’d expect. The children that were produced – now what kind of prospects did those children have?”
She also argued that, in a sense, eugenics was still being practised through prenatal diagnosis and therapeutic abortion, “and people don’t get up in arms over that because it’s not something decided by the state.”
In 1995, Dr. Thompson was a witness for the government of Alberta in a high-profile lawsuit brought against the province by Leilani Muir, who was 14 and an inmate at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer when she was sterilized without her knowledge in 1958 (prior to Dr. Thompson’s time on the board). Ms. Muir was told that her appendix was being removed, which was also true.
The court found that Dr. Thompson believed eugenics “represented good social policy before the advent of easy contraception and before abortions were legal.”
The idea of sterilizing anyone for social reasons “is something that we have never supported and we remain strongly opposed to any such activity,” Dr. Lou Siminovitch and Dr. Worton said in response. They, too, found statements attributed to Dr. Thompson out of character.
In any event, Ms. Muir won her case and was awarded $740,780 in damages and $230,000 in legal fees. Asked years later in a CBC interview what she would say to Dr. Thompson, she replied, “I wouldn’t even waste my breath.”
Dr. Thompson was among those scientists who delivered early warnings against genetic engineering – the direct manipulation of a human genome. “Man can stop making atom bombs if he wants to,” she told The Globe and Mail in 1976, “but a biological monster, once created, goes on reproducing itself. Humanity might find itself in a sorcerer’s apprentice situation.”
Dr. Thompson was predeceased by her husband and her son Gordon. She leaves her son Bruce, and two grandchildren.
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